Re: The Ecosystem is Moving

Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal gave a talk at 36C3 on Saturday titled “The ecosystem is moving”.

The Fahrplan description of that talk reads as follows:

Considerations for distributed and decentralized technologies from the perspective of a product that many would like to see decentralize.

Amongst an environment of enthusiasm for blockchain-based technologies, efforts to decentralize the internet, and tremendous investment in distributed systems, there has been relatively little product movement in this area from the mobile and consumer internet spaces.

This is an exploration of challenges for distributed technologies, as well as some considerations for what they do and don’t provide, from the perspective of someone working on user-focused mobile communication. This also includes a look at how Signal addresses some of the same problems that decentralized and distributed technologies hope to solve.

https://fahrplan.events.ccc.de/congress/2019/Fahrplan/events/11086.html

Basically the talk is a reiteration of some arguments from a blog post with the same title he posted back in 2016.

In his presentation, Marlinspike basically states that federated systems have the issue of being frozen in time while centralized systems are flexible and easy to change.

As an example, Marlinspike names HTTP/1.1, which was released in 1999 and on which we are stuck on ever since. While it is true that a huge part of the internet is currently running on HTTP 1.0 and 1.1, one has to consider that its successor HTTP/2.0 was only released in 2015. 4 / 5 years are not a long time to update the entirety of the internet, especially if you consider the fact that the big browser vendors announced to only make their browsers work with HTTP/2.0 sites when they are TLS encrypted.

Marlinspike then goes on listing 4 expectations that advocates of federated systems have, namely privacy, censorship resistance, availability and control. This is pretty accurate and matches my personal expectations pretty well. He then argues, that Signal as a centralized application can fulfill those expectations as well, if not better than a decentralized system.

Privacy

Privacy is often expected to be provided by the means of data ownership, says Marlinspike. As an example he mentions email. He argues that even though he is self-hosting his emails, “each and every mail has GMail at the other end”.

I agree with this observation and think that this is a real problem. But the answer to this problem would logically be that we need to increase our efforts to change that by reducing the number of GMail accounts and increasing the number of self-hosted email servers, right? This is not really an argument for centralization, where each and every message is guaranteed to have the same service at the other end.

I also agree with his opinion that a more effective tool to gain privacy is good encryption. He obviously brings the point that email encryption is unusable, (hinting to PGP probably), totally ignoring modern approaches to email encryption like autocrypt.

Censorship resistance

Federated systems are censorship resistant. At least that is the expectation that advocates of federated systems have. Every time a server gets blocked, the user just simply switches to another server. The issue that Marlinspike points out is, that every time this happens, the user loses his entire social graph. While this is an issue, there are solutions to this problem, one being nomadic identities. If some server goes down the user simply migrates to another server, taking his contacts with him. Hubzilla does this for example. There are also import/export features present in most services nowadays thanks to the GDPR. XMPP offers such a solution using XEP-0277.

But lets take a look at how Signal circumvents censorship according to Marlinspike. He proudly presents Domain Fronting as the solution. With domain fronting, the client connects to some big service which is costly to block for a censor and uses that as a proxy to connect to the actual server. While this appears to be a very elegant solution, Marlinspike conceals the fact that Google and Amazon pretty quickly intervened and stopped Signal from using their domains.

With Google Cloud and AWS out of the picture, it seems that domain fronting as a censorship circumvention technique is now largely non-viable in the countries where Signal had enabled this feature.

https://signal.org/blog/looking-back-on-the-front/

Notice that above quote was posted by Marlinspike himself more than one and a half years ago. Why exactly he brings this as an argument remains a mystery to me.

Update: Apparently Signal still successfully uses Domain Fronting, just with content delivery networks other than Google and Amazon.

And even if domain fronting was an effective way to circumvent censorship, it could also be applied to federated servers as well, adding an additional layer of protection instead of solely relying on it.

But what if the censor is not a foreign nation, but instead the nation where your servers are located? What if the US decides to shutdown signal.org for some reason? No amount of domain fronting can protect you from police raiding your server center. Police confiscating each and every server of a federated system (or even a considerable fraction of it) on the other hand is unlikely.

Availability

This brings us nicely to the next point on the agenda, availability.

If you have a centralized service than you want to move that centralized service into two different data centers. And the way you did that was by splitting the data up between those data centers and you just halved your availability, because the mean time between failures goes up since you have two different data centers which means that it is more likely to have an outage in one of those data centers in any given moment.

Moxie Marlinspike in his 36c3 talk “The Ecosystem is Moving”

For some reason Marlinspike confuses a decentralized system with a centralized, but distributed system. It even reads “Centralized Service” on his slides… Decentralization does not equal distribution.

A federated system would obviously not be fault free, as servers naturally tend to go down, but an outage only causes a small fraction of the network to collapse, contrary to a total outage of centralized systems. There even are techniques to minimize the loss of functionality further, for example distributed chat rooms in the matrix protocol.

Control

The advocates argument of control says that if a service provider behaves undesirably, you simply switch to another service provider. Marlinspike rightfully asks the question how it then can be that many people still use Yahoo as their mail provider. Indeed that is a good question. I guess the only answer I can come up with is that most people probably don’t care enough about their email to make the switch. To be honest, email is kind of boring anyways 😉

XMPP

Next Marlinspike talks about XMPP. He (rightfully) notes that due to XMPPs extensibility there is a morass of XEPs and that those don’t really feel consistent.

The XMPP community already recognized the problem that comes with having that many XEPs and tries to solve this issue by introducing so called compliance suites. These are annually published documents that contain a list of XEPs that are considered vitally important for clients or servers. These suites act as maps that point a way through the XEP jungle.

Next Marlinspike states that the XMPP protocol still fails to be a suitable option for mobile devices. This statement is plain wrong and was already debunked in a blog post by Daniel Gultsch back in 2016. Gultsch develops an XMPP client for Android which is totally usable and generally has lower battery consumption than Signal has. Conversations implements all of the XEPs listed in the compliance suites to be required for mobile clients. This shows that implementing a decent mobile client for a federated system can be done and there is a recipe for it.

What Marlinspike could have pointed out instead is that the XMPP community struggles to come up with a decent iOS client. That would have been a fair argument, but spreading FUD about the XMPP protocol as a whole is unfair and dishonest.

Luckily the audience of the talk didn’t fully buy into Marlinspikes weaker arguments as demonstrated by some entertaining questions during the QA afterwards.

What Marlinspike is right about though is that developing a federated system is harder than doing a centralized service. You as the developer have control over the whole system and subsequently over the users. However this is actually the reason why we, the community of decentralized systems and federated protocols do what we do. In the words of J.F. Kennedy, we do these things…

…not because they are easy, but because they are hard…

… or simply because they are right.

On “Clean Architecture”

I recently did what I rarely do: buy and read an educational book. Shocking, I know, but I can assure you that I’m fine 😉

The book I ordered is Clean Architecture – A Craftsman’s Guide to Software Structure and Design by Robert C. Martin. As the title suggests it is about software architecture.

I’ve barely read half of the book, but I’ve already learned a ton! I find it curious that as a halfway decent programmer, I often more or less know what Martin is talking about when he is describing a certain architectural pattern, but I often didn’t know said pattern had a name, or what consequences using said pattern really implied. It is really refreshing to see the bigger picture and having all the pros and cons of certain design decisions layed out in an overview.

One important point the book is trying to put across is how important it is to distinguish between important things like business rule, and not so important things as details. Let me try to give you an example.

Lets say I want to build a reactive Android XMPP chat application using Smack (foreshadowing? 😉 ). Lets identify the details. Surely Smack is a detail. Even though I’d be using Smack for some of the core functionalities of the app, I could just as well chose another XMPP library like babbler to get the job done. But there are even more details, Android for example.

In fact, when you strip out all the details, you are left with reactive chat application. Even XMPP is a detail! A chat application doesn’t care, what protocol you use to send and receive messages, heck it doesn’t even care if it is run on Android or on any other device (that can run java).

I’m still not quite sure, if the keyword reactive is a detail, as I’d say it is a more a programming paradigm. Details are things that can easily be switched out and/or extended and I don’t think you can easily replace a programming paradigm.

The book does a great job of identifying and describing simple rules that, when applied to a project lead to a cleaner, more structured architecture. All in all it teaches how important software architecture in general is.

There is however one drawback with the book. It constantly wants to make you want to jump straight into your next big project with lots of features, so it is hard to keep reading while all that excited ;P

If you are a software developer – no matter whether you work on small hobby projects or big enterprise products, whether or not you pursue to become a Software Architect – I can only recommend reading this book!

One more thought: If you want to support a free software project, maybe donating books like this is a way to contribute?

Happy Hacking!

Dealing with Colors in lower Android versions

I’m currently working on a project which requires me to dynamically set the color of certain UI elements to random RGB values.

Unfortunately and surprisingly, handy methods for dealing with colors in Android are only available since API level 26 (Android O). Luckily though, the developer reference specifies, how colors are encoded internally in the Android operating system, so I was able to create a class with the most important color-related (for my use-case) methods which is able to function in lower Android versions as well.

Link to the gist

I hope I can save some of you from headaches by sharing the code. Feel free to reuse as you please 🙂

Happy Hacking!

PS: Is there a way to create Github-like gists with Gitea?

Another Step to a Google-free Life

I watch a lot of YouTube videos. So much, that it starts to annoy me, how much of my free time I’m wasting by watching (admittedly very interesting) clips of a broad range of content creators.

Logging out of my Google account helped a little bit to keep my addiction at bay, as it appears to prevent the YouTube algorithm, which normally greets me with a broad set of perfectly selected videos from recognizing me. But then again I use Google to log in to one service or another, so it became annoying to log in and back out again all the time. At one point I decided to delete my YouTube history, which resulted in a very bad prediction of what videos I might like. This helped for a short amount of time, but the algorithm quickly returned to its merciless precision after a few days.

Today I decided, that its time to leave Google behind completely. My Google Mail account was used only for online shopping anyways, so I figured why not use a more privacy respecting service instead. Self-hosting was not an option for me, as I only have a residential IP address on my Raspberry Pi and also I heard that hosting a mail server is a huge pain.

A New Mail Account

So I created an account at the Berlin based service mailbox.org. They offer emails plus some cloud stuff like an office suite, storage etc., although I don’t think I’ll use any of the additional services (oh, they offer an XMPP account as well :P). The service is not free as in free beer as it costs 1€ per month, but that’s a fair price in my opinion. All in all it appears to be a good replacement for all the Google stuff.

As a next step, I went through the long list of all the websites and shops that I have accounts on, scouting for those services that are registered on my Google Mail address. All those mail settings had to be changed to the new account.

Mail Extensions

Bonus Tipp: Mailbox.org has support for so called Mail Extensions (or Plus Extensions, I’m not really sure how they are called). This means that you can create a folder in your inbox, lets say “fsfe”. Now you can change your mail address of your FSFE account to “username+fsfe@mailbox.org”. Mails from the FSFE will still go to your “username@mailbox.org” mail account, but they are automatically sorted into the fsfe inbox. This is useful not only to sort mails by sender, but also to find out, which of the many services you use messed up and leaked your mail address to those nasty spammers, so you can avoid that service in the future.

This trick also works for Google Mail by the way.

Deleting (most) the Google Services

The last step logically would be to finally delete my Google account. However, I’m not entirely sure if I really changed all the important services over to the new account, so I’ll keep it for a short period of time (a month or so) to see if any more important mails arrive.

However, I discovered that under the section “Delete Services or Account” you can see a list of all the services which are connected with your Google account. It is possible to partially delete those services, so I went ahead and deleted most of it, except Google Mail.

Additional Bonus Tipp: I use NewPipe on my phone, which is a free libre replacement for the YouTube app. It has a neat feature which lets you import your subscriptions from your YouTube account. That way I can still follow some of the creators, but in a more manual way (as I have to open the app on my phone, which I don’t often do). In my eyes, this is a good compromise 🙂

I’m looking forward to go fully Google-free soon. I de-googled my phone ages ago, but for some reason I still held on to my Google account. This will be sorted out soon though!

De-Googling your Phone?

By the way, if you are looking to de-google your phone, Mike Kuketz has a great series of blog posts about that topic (in German though):

Happy Hacking!

Update (27.05.2019)

A look at Matrix.org’s OLM | MEGOLM encryption protocol

Everyone who knows and uses XMPP is probably aware of a new player in the game. Matrix.org is often recommended as a young, arising alternative to the aging protocol behind the Jabber ecosystem. However the founders do not see their product as a direct competitor to XMPP as their approach to the problem of message exchanging is quite different.

An open network for secure, decentralized communication.

matrix.org

During his talk at the FOSDEM in Brussels, matrix.org founder Matthew Hodgson roughly compared the concept of matrix to how git works. Instead of passing single messages between devices and servers, matrix is all about synchronization of a shared state. A chat room can be seen as a repository, which is shared between all servers of the participants. As a consequence communication in a chat room can go on, even when the server on which the room was created goes down, as the room simultaneously exists on all the other servers. Once the failed server comes back online, it synchronizes its state with the others and retrieves missed messages.

Matrix in the French State

Olm, Megolm – What’s the deal?

Matrix introduced two different crypto protocols for end-to-end encryption. One is named Olm, which is used in one-to-one chats between two chat partners (this is not quite correct, see Updates for clarifying remarks). It can very well be compared to OMEMO, as it too is an adoption of the Signal Protocol by OpenWhisperSystems. However, due to some differences in the implementation Olm is not compatible with OMEMO although it shares the same cryptographic properties.

The other protocol goes by the name of Megolm and is used in group chats. Conceptually it deviates quite a bit from Olm and OMEMO, as it contains some modifications that make it more suitable for the multi-device use-case. However, those modifications alter its cryptographic properties.

Comparing Cryptographic Building Blocks

ProtocolOlmOMEMO (Signal)
IdentityKeyCurve25519X25519
FingerprintKey⁽¹⁾Ed25519none
PreKeysCurve25519X25519
SignedPreKeys⁽²⁾noneX25519
Key Exchange
Algorithm⁽³⁾
Triple Diffie-Hellman
(3DH)
Extended Triple
Diffie-Hellman (X3DH)
Ratcheting AlgoritmDouble RatchetDouble Ratchet
  1. Signal uses a Curve X25519 IdentityKey, which is capable of both encrypting, as well as creating signatures using the XEdDSA signature scheme. Therefore no separate FingerprintKey is needed. Instead the fingerprint is derived from the IdentityKey. This is mostly a cosmetic difference, as one less key pair is required.
  2. Olm does not distinguish between the concepts of signed and unsigned PreKeys like the Signal protocol does. Instead it only uses one type of PreKey. However, those may be signed with the FingerprintKey upon upload to the server.
  3. OMEMO includes the SignedPreKey, as well as an unsigned PreKey in the handshake, while Olm only uses one PreKey. As a consequence, if the senders Olm IdentityKey gets compromised at some point, the very first few messages that are sent could possibly be decrypted.

In the end Olm and OMEMO are pretty comparable, apart from some simplifications made in the Olm protocol. Those do only marginally affect its security though (as far as I can tell as a layman).

Megolm

The similarities between OMEMO and Matrix’ encryption solution end when it comes to group chat encryption.

OMEMO does not treat chats with more than two parties any other than one-to-one chats. The sender simply has to manage a lot more keys and the amount of required trust decisions grows by a factor roughly equal to the number of chat participants.

Yep, this is a mess but luckily XMPP isn’t a very popular chat protocol so there are no large encrypted group chats ;P

So how does Matrix solve the issue?

When a user joins a group chat, they generate a session for that chat. This session consists of an Ed25519 SigningKey and a single ratchet which gets initialized randomly.

The public part of the signing key and the state of the ratchet are then shared with each participant of the group chat. This is done via an encrypted channel (using Olm encryption). Note, that this session is also shared between the devices of the user. Contrary to Olm, where every device has its own Olm session, there is only one Megolm session per user per group chat.

Whenever the user sends a message, the encryption key is generated by forwarding the ratchet and deriving a symmetric encryption key for the message from the ratchets output. Signing is done using the SigningKey.

Recipients of the message can decrypt it by forwarding their copy of the senders ratchet the same way the sender did, in order to retrieve the same encryption key. The signature is verified using the public SigningKey of the sender.

There are some pros and cons to this approach, which I briefly want to address.

First of all, you may find that this protocol is way less elegant compared to Olm/Omemo/Signal. It poses some obvious limitations and security issues. Most importantly, if an attacker gets access to the ratchet state of a user, they could decrypt any message that is sent from that point in time on. As there is no new randomness introduced, as is the case in the other protocols, the attacker can gain access by simply forwarding the ratchet thereby generating any decryption keys they need. The protocol defends against this by requiring the user to generate a new random session whenever a new user joins/leaves the room and/or a certain number of messages has been sent, whereby the window of possibly compromised messages gets limited to a smaller number. Still, this is equivalent to having a single key that decrypts multiple messages at once.

The Megolm specification lists a number of other caveats.

On the pro side of things, trust management has been simplified as the user basically just has to decide whether or not to trust each group member instead of each participating device – reducing the complexity from a multiple of n down to just n. Also, since there is no new randomness being introduced during ratchet forwarding, messages can be decrypted multiple times. As an effect devices do not need to store the decrypted messages. Knowledge of the session state(s) is sufficient to retrieve the message contents over and over again.

By sharing older session states with own devices it is also possible to read older messages on new devices. This is a feature that many users are missing badly from OMEMO.

On the other hand, if you really need true future secrecy on a message-by-message base and you cannot risk that an attacker may get access to more than one message at a time, you are probably better off taking the bitter pill going through the fingerprint mess and stick to normal Olm/OMEMO (see Updates for remarks on this statement).

Note: End-to-end encryption does not really make sense in big, especially public chat rooms, since an attacker could just simply join the room in order to get access to ongoing communication. Thanks to Florian Schmaus for pointing that out.

I hope I could give a good overview of the different encryption mechanisms in XMPP and Matrix. Hopefully I did not make any errors, but if you find mistakes, please let me know, so I can correct them asap 🙂

Happy Hacking!

Sources

Updates:

Thanks for Matthew Hodgson for pointing out, that Olm/OMEMO is also effectively using a symmetric ratchet when multiple consecutive messages are sent without the receiving device sending an answer. This can lead to loss of future secrecy as discussed in the OMEMO protocol audit.

Also thanks to Hubert Chathi for noting, that Megolm is also used in one-to-one chats, as matrix doesn’t have the same distinction between group and single chats. He also pointed out, that the security level of Megolm (the criteria for regenerating the session) can be configured on a per-chat basis.

More Languages to the F-Droid Planet?

You may know about Planet F-Droid, a feed aggregator that aims to collect the blogs of many free Android projects in one place. Currently all of the registered blogs are written in English (as is this post, so if you know someone who might be concerned by the matter below and is not able to understand English, please feel free to translate for them).

Recently someone suggested that we should maybe create additional feeds for blogs in other languages. I’m not sure if there is interest in having support for more languages, so that’s why I want to ask you.

If you feel that Planet F-Droid should offer additional feeds for non-English blogs, please vote by thumbs up/down in the planets repository.

Happy Hacking!

I Love Free Software Day 2019

Free Software is a substantial part of my life. I got introduced to it by my computer science teacher in middle school, however back then I wasn’t paying that much attention to the ethics behind it and rather focused on the fact that it was gratis and new to me.

Using GNU/Linux on a school computer wasn’t really fun for me, as the user interface was not really my taste (I’m sorry KDE). It was only when I got so annoyed from the fact that my copy of Windows XP was 32 bit only and that I was supposed to pay the full price again for a 64 bit license, that I deleted Windows completely and installed Ubuntu on my computer – only to reinstall Windows again a few weeks later though. But the first contact was made.

Back then I was still mostly focused on cool features rather than on the meaning of free software. Someday however, I watched the talk by Richard Stallman and started to read more about what software freedom really is. At this point I was learning how to use blender on Ubuntu to create animations and only rarely booted into Windows. But when I did, it suddenly felt oddly wrong. I realized that I couldn’t truly trust my computer. This time I tried harder to get rid of Windows.

Someone once said that you only feel your shackles when you try to move. I think the same goes for free software. Once you realize what free software is and what rights it grants you (what rights you really have), you start to feel uncomfortable if you’re suddenly denied those rights.

And that’s why I love free software! It gives you back the control over your machine. It’s something that you can trust, as there are no secrets kept from you (except if the program is written in Haskell and uses monads :P).

My favorite free software projects for this years I love free software day are the document digitization and management tool paperwork, the alternative Mastodon/Pleroma interface Halcyon and the WordPress ActivityPub Plugin. These are projects that I discovered in 2018/2019 and that truly amazed me.

I already wrote two blog posts about paperwork and the fediverse / the ActivityPub plugin earlier, so I’ll focus mainly on Halcyon today. Feel free to give those other posts a read though!

I’m a really big fan of the fediverse and Mastodon in particular, but I dislike Mastodon’s current interface (two complaints about user interfaces in one post? Mimimi…). In my opinion Mastodons column interface doesn’t really give enough space to the content and is not very intuitive. Halcyon is a web client which acts as an alternative interface to your Mastodon/Pleroma account. Visually it closely resembles the Twitter UI which I quite like.

Halcyon – An alternative user interface to Mastodon/Pleroma

As a plus, it is way easier to get people to move from Twitter to the fediverse by providing them with a familiar interface 😉

There are some public instances of Halcyon available, which you can use to try out Halcyon for yourselves, however in the long run I recommend you to self-host it, as you have to enter your account details in order to use it. Hosting it doesn’t take much more than a simple Raspberry Pi as it’s really light weight.

I know that a huge number of free software projects is developed by volunteers in their free time. Most of them don’t get any monetary compensation for their work and people often take this for granted. Additionally, a lot of the feedback developers get from their users is when things don’t work out or break.

(Not only) today is a chance to give some positive feedback and a huge Thank You to the developers of the software that makes your life easier!

Happy Hacking!

Quick Note: Backdoor in ES File Explorer

ES File Explorer is a popular file explorer app for Android. Even though it is proprietary, I must admit, that I came in touch with it too some years ago.

As Techcrunch reports, a security researcher now detected a backdoor in the app, which allows users on the same local area network as the victim to access the contents of the phone.

This example shows, how important it is to have free software, which can be audited by everyone.

Kuketz Blog about Blokada

Just a quick hint: Mike Kuketz released a blog post about how you can use Blokada to block ads and trackers on your android device. In his post, he explains how Blokada uses a private VPN to block DNS requests to known tracker/ad sites and recommends a set of rules to configure the app for best experience.

He also briefly mentions F-Droid and gives some arguments, why you should get your apps from there instead of the Play Store.

The blog post is written in German and is available on kuketz-blog.de.